Cowden Japanese-style garden was the brainchild of explorer Ella Christie (1861-1949). She is known to historians as one of a handful of pioneering explorers who broke with traditional ideas about the role of women in the later 19th and early 20th century in order to mount ambitious and far-flung solo expeditions (Birkett 2004). Her early trips included Tibet, India and Burma in 1904-5, China, Korea and Japan in 1907 and Russian Turkestan in 1910 and 1912 where she was the first British woman to reach Khiva in modern Uzbekistan (Pimlott Baker 2004). In between expeditions, Christie transformed her home environment at Cowden Castle, evoking scenes from her travels by filling rooms with artefacts (Birkett 2004: 267). It was her journey to Japan, however, that inspired her most ambitious home project. Enchanted by the gardens, temples and flowers of Kyoto and Tokyo in the late spring of 1907, and having taken a nine hour walking tour around Mount Fuji, she settled on the idea of creating her own Japanese-style garden (Stewart 1955: 203-10).
The wider context for Ella Christie's personal interest was the end of Japan's self-imposed isolation in the mid-19th century and the ensuing vogue in the West for its art, culture and nature. Garden-making was a popular manifestation of this trend, fuelled by the sudden availability of exotic plants, bulbs and ornaments, the work of artists and writers, such as Josiah Conder, author of the influential 1893 Landscape Gardening in Japan, and the trend-setting example of early gardens like that at Gunnersbury House, Middlesex. By the time of Christie's trip east, the British cultural love-affair with Japan was approaching its height. Within the space of just six months in 1910, some eight million people visited the Japan-British Exhibition in White City, London with its gardens, tableaux and miniature landscapes (Ketchell et. al. 2011: 48).
Whereas most early 20th-century Japanese-style gardens in Britain were a pastiche or mismatch of elements (Raggett 2011), Cowden was distinguished from the start by the involvement of experienced Japanese garden designers who applied fundamental concepts of the design tradition to create a more convincing design. First of these was Taki Handa from Kyushu and another female pioneer in her field. While still in Japan, Christie had been advised by Josiah Conder to source 'English speaking experts' (Tachibana et.al. 2004: 379), and Handa certainly fitted this description having studied horticulture and botany both in Kyoto and in the UK (Raggett et. al. 2013). Commissioned by Christie in 1907 to establish the framework of the garden, Handa made a reconaissance trip in January 1908 to discuss the site and sketch the landscape. With a vision for the garden developing in her mind and on paper, she returned in the spring and again in the summer, spending a total of six weeks at Cowden shaping the ground, placing stones, and supervising a small Scottish workforce of three hired labourers (Christie 1940: 235; Raggett et. al. 2013, 12-15).
Japanese garden design is an ancient and complex discipline in which practitioners devise entire landscapes in microcosm. Scale, proportion and harmony are prioritised in order to compose highly refined views of nature, rich in meaning and symbolism. At Cowden, the overall layout was determined by these conventions. It was inspired partly by the 'ancient rule' of the Imperial Palace Gardens and partly by Josiah Conder's writing (Tachibana et al. 2004: 379). 'An absolute sense of proportion was observed from the very beginning', wrote Christie (1940: 235).
Carefully composed photographs taken in the years immediately afterwards show the bare bones of the new garden. There was the newly created lake itself, the main island accessed by wooden bridges, timber structures and symbolic stones, lanterns and small shrubs all set within an open, still treeless landscape. Paths and stepping stones marked out the route around the lake, punctuated by a thatched gateway on the south side of the lake, a Shinto shrine on the west, and a revolving summerhouse on the north. The garden was named Shah-rak-uen, meaning a place of pleasure or delight.
Christie then initiated what was to become an enduring professional relationship with a second key figure: Professor Jijo Soya Suzuki, Master of the Soami School of Imperial Design, who had forged a successful career in the UK from c.1910 onwards (Raggett 2008). Suzuki visited Cowden on occasion to advise on garden form, planting and architecture and to execute very specific pruning methods on the growing trees and shrubs. His surviving letters provide valuable insight into the philosophy behind the practical garden work at Cowden, and one of his most well-known modifications was to persuade Christie to remove one of the original bridges and create a new, zig-zag (yatsuhashi), bridge in its place (NLS Acc.5058).
Japanese-style gardens are well-known for requiring a lot of regular maintenance, and the third Japanese individual associated with Cowden was employed by Christie in order to provide continuous, on-site care. Recommended by Suzuki in 1925, Shinzaburo Matsuo lived and worked as gardener at Cowden until his death in 1937 where according to some accounts, he proved 'as great an attraction to visitors as the exotic plants' (Birkett 2004: 269). Matsuo was buried in the local churchyard at Muckhart, with a headstone provided by Ella Christie.
The combination of Christie's drive and vision together with the involvement of individuals familiar with the nuances of Japanese garden design meant that Cowden achieved some degree of fame in its hey-day as a particularly authentic Japanese-style garden. According to Professor Suzuki, it was, in fact, the best in the Western world (NLS Acc.5058).
By the 1930s, Ella Christie's travelling days were behind her, and the garden at Cowden became a much-loved focus, easily accessed from the house by a cherry-lined avenue. Friends and distinguished guests were entertained there and it formed the setting for regular family tea-parties during which Christie proved a vivid raconteuse (Stewart, A 1955: 213-4; Birkett 1989; Birkett 2004: 269). After her death in 1949, the gardens were opened on occasion to raise money for charity and a guide written by Ella Christie's nephew in 1955 provides a valuable snapshot of Shah-rak-uen at this time: It was a visually striking pond and island garden with a borrowed view of the Ochils, a stroll garden of intricate paths and stepping stones, and a tea-house garden, all complemented by an impressive range of mature flowering shrubs and trees (Stewart, R. 1955).
In the 1960s, Cowden Japanese-style garden was very seriously vandalised. Structures were burnt down or toppled and the destruction heralded a period of decline. At the time of writing (2013), however, the owners are considering new options for restoring the garden.
The central focus of the entire composition is the long, artificial lake. By necessity, it was the first act of garden making in 1907 with work on drainage ditches and a secure embankment successfully transforming the formerly marshy field. The lake remains the organising feature for other core components of the garden, including the important 'Scattered' or 'Outlying' Isle. Located in the western half of the lake, it is now accessed by a modern timber bridge, and accommodates symbolic stones, flowering shrubs and stepping stones. The original bridge to this island from the north, and the zig-zag, (yatsuhashi) bridge from the south were destroyed in the 1960s along with the island's tea-house and nearby boathouse. A short distance to the west, meanwhile, are visible remains of the more ambiguous Galaxy Isle; a closely grouped composition of stones, while at the extreme western end of the lake are two smaller connected islands; the Master's Isle and Guest's Isle.
Japanese stroll gardens, which are typically associated with a water-body and intricate shore-line, involve a sequential progression through a series of overlapping views of the garden landscape, revealed as the participant moves along the path. At Cowden, this experience is facilitated by a main, lake-side path and a network of shorter paths and stepping stones. From the south and east, views of the Ochil summits act as shakkei, or borrowed landscape and is part of the total composition. Gateways or toriis (now lost) once marked significant thresholds along the way, including the transition into the more sheltered, 'sacred domain' at the western area of the garden articulated as such by more symbolic stones and the Shinto Shrine to Imari, (partial remains extant) (Christie 1940: 235). Also in evidence are parts of the late 18th and earlier 19th century Kasuga and snow-viewing stone lanterns, shipped in by Christie from Nara and Kyoto in 1908 (NLS Acc.5058). On the sloping ground north-west of the lake, (the Slopes of Fuji), vestiges of another path lead to the minimal remains of the former revolving summerhouse.
The careful positioning of highly charged, symbolic stones is an important and complex aspect of the Japanese garden tradition. Many such stones remain in situ at Cowden. Some will relate to the original work of Taki Handa in 1908 who, according to Christie, sourced and placed stones in their 'orthodox grouping' (Christie 1940: 225), while others are likely to relate to design advice from Professor Suzuki. Among the archive of his letters, for example, is a sketch of the zig-zag bridge and adjacent, named stones, with an accompanying instruction by Christie for labels to be made-up (NLS Acc.5058). Some of the stones at Cowden were behaviour-indicating and conveyed specific rituals normally associated with the Japanese tea-garden tradition. They include the Face-washing stone, the Shoe-removing stone, or the important Guest Honouring stone. Other known stones evoked grand themes or cosmology, like the Kwannon Stone (relating to a mountain deity) and five that represent the five virtues (patriotism, fidelity, loyalty to family life, faith and obedience to parents). Although beyond the remit of this report, it would be feasible to match many of the in situ stones in the garden with historical evidence for their allocated name and symbolism.
From the start, the hard, structural elements at Cowden were combined with a planting scheme of many different ornamental trees and shrubs, selected with reference to both the Japanese garden tradition and the limitations of the Clackmannanshire climate and soil. Some trees have now grown to be impressive specimens (such as a Corstorphine Maple in the western part of the garden), while others still bear physical traces of specialist pruning work undertaken many decades ago. Many original plants still thrive and contribute colour and texture to the overall garden composition. As with the stones, more in-depth work on-site would help document surviving species.